I feel so bad for you, my friend,
your sufferings unsettle
my faith in meaning, I meant to say.
–Andrew Hudgins, “Courtesy”
My grief requires loud music (Mumford and Sons, The Rolling Stones, Radiohead), the poetry of death (Andrew Hudgins, Sharon Olds, Donald Hall), and television. Lots of television. Jason and I have zipped through ten seasons of The Simpsons, which I mostly slept through, a few select episodes of Moral Orel (the end of Season 2 and all of Season 3), and are currently re-watching The Wire. My father’s surround sound speakers make West Baltimore’s gunshots ricochet off our walls, embed themselves between our ears. My mother used to discourage me against “zoning out” in front of the TV, procrastinating and atrophying on the couch. But the grieving mind is erratic, a jumbled mess of shorted impulses and misfired signals. It requires a shit ton of rebooting. I put the TV on and my brain becomes a screen saver, recycling familiar (and therefore comforting) images. It allows me the protracted rest I need to get through short, frenzied bursts of work and estate management.
We also re-watched Mad Men, but rather than harboring myself in that cocoon of distracted sleepiness, I was more awake for this one, taken again with the emotional gravity of the show, with the relationships that deepen and change over the course of the narrative. Don and Peggy. Pete and Lane. Even Bert Cooper and Mrs. Blankenship, whose Depression-era romance is paid homage as they comfortably solve a crossword puzzle together just before Mrs. Blankenship dies at her desk. “She was born in 1898 in a barn,” Cooper says as he tries to compose her obituary. “She died on the 37th floor of a skyscraper. She’s an astronaut.”
There’s also Joan and Roger, one of my favorite pairings on the show. In the beginning seasons, their longstanding affair comically inverts the power structure of Sterling Cooper, with office manager Joan calling the shots in her relationship with SC partner Roger, who follows her around like a smart-mouthed puppy. When the affair ends and they each marry other people, their romantic history gives way to a subtle, knowing kind of friendship. Joan does a post-heart attack Roger’s makeup before an important meeting, and Roger finds work for Joan after she temporarily leaves Sterling Cooper. In one touching Season 3 scene, Roger, seated beside his passed-out wife, calls Joan to discuss JFK’s assassination, looking for someone who can understand his complicated feelings.
But on this subsequent viewing, with my heart both swelled and hollowed by loss, it was another Joan and Roger moment that left me curled on the bed in the fetal position. Near the end of Season 4, after a brief rekindling of their romance sparked by a street mugging and the absence of Joan’s husband in the Army, Joan tells Roger it’s over between them for good. “I’m not a solution to your problems,” she says, “I’m another problem.”
Roger, heartbroken but dapper, dons a cockeyed fedora in preparation to leave. Then he looks back at Joan, and sadly, sweetly, as though looking at a faded Polaroid, says, “So that night we got mugged, that was the last time? I wish I’d known that.”
I wish I’d known that. Yesterday, word reached me that writer Emily Rapp’s son, Ronan, who has the invariably fatal Tay-Sach’s disease, is facing the end of his short life. I’ve been following Rapp’s chronicle of her own grief (as well as Ronan’s physical decline) for nearly two years. Her dynamic, philosophic, wrenching work has mesmerized me to the point of having alerts of new posts sent to my phone. But it was Rapp’s recent essay on Role/Reboot that I thought of when I heard the news. “What If This Thanksgiving Was Your Last?” describes the “jangly and nervous” feeling Rapp experienced during the 2012 holidays season, wondering if Ronan would live to see another Thanksgiving. My father had been dead exactly one week.
The essay opens with Rapp describing an assignment she gives her creative writing students. They are to write a Thanksgiving scene that captures the way holidays magnify a family’s operating system–the quirks and eccentricities, the hidden alliances, the variables of age or politics. Using occasion to explore character, Rapp teaches that “there’s a kind of electrifying buzz around family and other relationship constellations when the holiday season begins, and it’s not just about the cloying Rudolph music blaring from the supermarket speakers and ads that try to convince you that buying an organic turkey versus a Butterball will define your ethical platform as a human being.” In other words, holidays tend to strip us of our artifices and reveal our internal scaffolding. The weak spots. The reinforcements.
The assignment itself is a framing device for Rapp’s essay. She then plunges into a meditation on life lived on the cusp of loss. Of knowing her son will die and loving him with her whole heart anyway. Of learning, through others’ grief in the Tay-Sach’s community, how deep love ”has the power to hurt you in unfathomable ways, but if you are truly open to it, it will save you, even if it can’t save the people you love best in the world.” Of what it means to remember those who die in what she calls “retroactive hope.” The hope that remembering, however painful, unlocks the lives of those we love and lose, as well as new parts of our own lives, even new ways of living. Grief is instructive, and though it seems to be an absolute, a hammer we cannot deflect from our heads, grief gives us choices. We can rail against the pain and withhold ourselves from it, as well as the love that always precedes it, or we can lean into it, knowing that the hard, ringing fall of the metal is another incarnation of that love.
The essay then closes with Rapp’s revision of her original assignment:
I’d ask them instead to write a holiday dinner scene with all the people they loved best, but with the added knowledge that it will be the last time everyone sat around that table together and passed around crystal bowls full of cranberry sauce and relish dishes. Write the scene knowing that everything, always, can be fractured, broken, dissolved. Write it with the knowledge that someone around that table within the next year will drop dead, disappear, disavow. Write it knowing that the only conflict worth worrying about is this one: When faced with the choice between shutting down your emotion, at the fear of risking pain, or opening up to everything and trusting that you’ll survive it, which will you choose?
2012 was my last year with my father. Though I’ve never been one to shut down emotion as a defensive mechanism, though I can’t recall a time in my life when I’ve opted to feel nothing instead of feeling pain, I still ask myself: If I’d known my father would die in 2012, what might I have done with that knowledge?
I would have insisted on cleaning his apartment earlier, so he could have had visitors all year. So I could have come over and popped in the Mad Men DVDs I let him borrow, but which he never watched. I would have let him read my book before it was published, so he could have made the suggestions for revision he made when it was too late, when the book had already wounded him. So he could have answered the many questions I ask in those essays. And on a more visceral level, if I’d known he was dying right there on the phone with me, saying, “Please, just talk me through this, honey,” I would have instead hung up and called 911, and not waited until we’d consulted with my mother.
Though all year I told my father I loved him at the end of every conversation, and he said it back to me, and we meant it, all of our lives we meant it, I still tally what I overlooked. What I dismissed. What I failed to see. What I’ll recount in my writing through the lens of his impending death, all the scenes that contain it even as he lives and breathes and talks to me from the page.
There is no perfect love, just as there is no perfect death.
In other work, Rapp has said that looking at pictures of her pregnancy, before she knew Ronan was sick–sick even in the womb–is like looking at a different person. A person unaware of the grief in store for her. Back in October, about three weeks before I learned of my father’s cancer–the cancer that did not ultimately kill him, but that almost certainly led to the heart attack that did–I participated in a collaborative writing project with my friend and fellow nonfictionist, Marissa Landrigan. In a weeklong series of emails for the VIDA organization‘s blog, Her Kind, Marissa and I were assigned the theme of “letting go” and charged with the task of exploring that theme conversationally as it pertained to both our real lives and our writing. Having both just turned thirty, Marissa and I approached the conversation with the anxious anticipation of starting our new decade, something I think we defined as a narrative marker of allowance, a mandate to define our hard-won wisdom. With an opening prompt including lines from Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art,” (“Lose something every day. Accept the fluster/ of lost door keys, the hour badly spent./ The art of losing isn’t hard to master.”) we set to the task of articulating the meaning of our mutual transition. You can read the full conversation here.
After my father died, I awaited this publication with more than a measure of dread. I was right to do so. When I described the experience of reading the insights of a self I no longer recognize, my friend B., who lost her father a few months before I lost mine, said, “Reading another person! Yes. That makes total sense to me. An innocent’s voice who doesn’t think they’re innocent.”
How badly I want to step in the middle of this conversation, grab my old self by the shoulders, and shake her. Girl, I’d say, channeling the Italian-American women of my childhood, You don’t know what you’re talking about. You don’t even know who you are yet. I know that B. is right when she advises me to be gentle to this girl, to remember that innocence is a vital part of how we become wise (an idea Marissa and I discuss at length, Marissa much more eloquently than me). But I’m reading the proclamations of a person who is about to lose her father, and there’s nothing I can do to warn her, to propel her beyond the innocence that now fills me with disappointment. Because the thing is, I don’t want to be that person again. I don’t want my innocence back.
In her landmark essay, “The Love of My Life,” author Cheryl Strayed offers this criticism of our culture’s response to grief: “We want it to be true that if someone we love dies, we simply have to pass through a series of phases, like an emotional obstacle course from which we will emerge happy and content, unharmed and unchanged.” How often people have recited those phases to me–denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance–as though they’re patiently (or sometimes impatiently) waiting for me to complete them, turn away from grief, return to them the person they remember. My mother jumps at the sound of my achy voice on the phone. “What’s wrong?” she says, maternal instinct kicking in before she remembers. One of my friends is aghast at the anger that sometimes creeps into my voice, the viciousness underlying my tone. Another friend suggests a combination of proactive positivity and gratitude for what I still have. The people who recite this litany of practiced, culturally-trained reactions are almost always inexperienced with the death of a parent, sibling, spouse, or child, which Strayed catalogs as the list of deaths the Jewish faith says makes you a mourner. I don’t begrudge my friends their responses, lost and frustrated as they are in their inability to soothe me. But I’ve found myself retreating, instead soothed by either the near-strangers who don’t know me as anyone other than a daughter who just lost her father, or people who have also lost what I have lost.
The other day, for instance. I told my stylist about my father’s death. She was standing behind me, wrist-deep in my new hair color, but I detected a slight shift in her balance, heard something faint escape her lips. “Have you lost a parent?” I asked. We both looked out the wall-length windows, watching the people on the street. I knew before she answered. It’s an unsettling intuition I’ve acquired, but I’m grateful for it. These are the things to which I now attach gratitude.
How could Roger have seen it coming, the end of his great love? When they slept together in the aftermath of gunpoint robbery, could he have seen the impetus behind Joan’s grasping touch? If he had known what it meant–that sometimes we reach for the familiar instead of what we need–would he have held her tighter, looked deeper into her eyes, latched on to the detail of her dress or the exact smell of her hair?
If I had known that my father was going to leave me, to what would I have made myself more present?
Yet former Amy seems to sense the experience her writing lacked, the forces that await to ruin and make us more human:
Recently, I noticed that much of the writing I did in my twenties brought characters right to the brink of loss in their lives…and then I left them there, sometimes hanging on the edge before an inevitable unraveling, and sometimes flashing forward to what the loss would come to allow. I never let my characters experience their losses all the way through. Instead, I cut the meatiest chunk right out. For me, the last line of Bishop’s poem— the speaker imploring herself to “Write it!” — speaks to the work of loss I’ve often avoided both professionally and personally, and the work I’m gearing up to do better.
Not avoided, I see now. Just never known.